Monthly Archives: December 2009

THE PIETERPAD – 500km across Holland by foot and bike

‘How exactly is this meant to be fun??’ My wife is screaming to make herself heard over the thunder and pelting rain. She fumbles to tighten the hood of her jacket, and the gale nearly rips the plastic coverings from her bike’s panniers.

I look around for shelter. There isn’t any. We’re totally exposed on a dyke by the Overijssel Canal, somewhere in the northern Netherlands. I tug grimly at the straps on my backpack and count several beats between lightning flash and thunder. We won’t be struck dead immediately. The rain is replaced by hailstones as big as, well, big enough to hurt when they hit your head.
‘We could get a train back to Amsterdam tonight,’ says my wife, trying to sound reasonable. ‘Why are we doing this?’

I don’t know why. I just decided to walk the Pieterpad. The ‘Peter Path’ is a marked route crossing the Netherlands from north to south. It’s supposed to give you a real Dutch experience. We’ve done the first 134km and it certainly has been an experience. It’s rained every day, we’re cold, we’re tired and it’s still over 350km to the Belgian border.

‘Only five kilometres to Gramsbergen,’ I say cheerily.

‘What’s so good about Gramsbergen?’ she asks through clenched teeth. I have no idea. I only booked accommodation there because the map said it was 29km from Sleen and I thought that would be a reasonable day’s walk.

We press on and find a farm shed to shelter in, and the guard dog barks but doesn’t bite. When the storm passes we cross improbably green fields to the impossibly cute village of Gramsbergen. In the kitchen of our B & B, Mrs Cuperus pumps us with tea and coffee and her pet parrot choruses ‘Mooi, mooi!’ (‘Beautiful, beautiful!’)  By next morning we’re ready to take on another stage.

It isn’t difficult, since the Pieterpad is mostly flat. The Dutch don’t ‘bushwalk’ or ‘hike’. They make a ‘wandeling’, which suggests a pleasant cross between wandering and rambling. The route can also be cycled, so my wife has brought her bike. While I wandel through forests and over fields, she follows the big clear numbers on the bitumen cycle paths criss-crossing the country. We meet up for coffee breaks and lunch; then she goes ahead to locate a B&B or small hotel, and uncork the wine in time for The Walker to arrive.

Navigation is no problem. The maps mark every field, barn and canal. There are villages every few kilometres, with encouraging red teacup symbols promising cheerful cafes. Anyway, we can often see the church spire of the next village sticking up behind those black-faced sheep.

Pictures in the Pieterpad guidebook show lightly-clad walkers strolling across sunny dykes and through dolls-house villages. They didn’t photograph any thunderstorms or icy winds. They forgot to mention that cheerful cafes may be closed until 6pm, Wednesday or Christmas.

Yet despite such setbacks we have a great time. The daily weather reports always say it will ‘remain changeable’, but the sun shines more often as we move south and the Pieterpad is as charming as advertised. We love the small scale of everything. Perfect little rectangular farms, little patches of forest and little villages with little thatched-roof houses. Even the most popular horses are Shetland ponies.

We love the skies too. On a landscape so flat, we pay attention to the clouds. It’s early spring, so we see the seasons change. We watch the first green buds appear on the trees, and in turn the crocuses, daffodils and eventually tulips start to bloom.

But for Aussies, the man-made Dutch landscape is the most interesting aspect of the trip. Every house is apparently forced by law to have an immaculate front garden with low box hedges, clogs hung up as flower pots and a ‘WELKOM’ sign by the front door. Windowsills must be decorated with symmetrical pairs of pot plants, candles or statues of storks. Every little village square must have a statue; not a heroic bust of a forgotten public figure but a small, accessible sculpture, often funny or quirky.

Then there’s all that history. In the northern province of Drenthe we visit “hunebedden”; piles of ancient boulders which were pre-historic burial sites. Near Arnhem are the WW2 sites – a cemetery for Canadian paratroops from Operation Market Garden, monuments in the forests to crews of crashed Allied planes, and Jewish cemeteries with tragic little memorials remembering local holocaust victims.
In the larger towns we visit museums like the ultramodern Groninger Museum and the quaint Niedermeyer Museum, dedicated entirely to the history of smoking and chewing tobacco. We pass though attractive old villages like Ommen and Gennep, and ones with great names like Slek, Tolkamer and Grubbenvorst. There’s never a shortage of bed and breakfasts or small hotels we can stay in.
The food is good too. Because of all the exercise we’re getting, we feel justified in eating huge slices of apple cake with whipped cream, and shovelling in litres of traditional split pea or brown bean soup.
We meet hardy Dutch day walkers, usually hearty older couples straight out of TV ads for retirement funds. Thousands of people walk the Pieterpad each year, though few tackle it in one go, as we are doing. But it’s easy to organise a day or weekend trip to do a part of it and well worth the trouble. As highlights, we’d pick Drenthe for its wild heath landscape and old farms. Or alternatively we’d suggest South Limburg for the gently undulating hills (yes, there are a few in the Netherlands) and the lovely towns of Sittard and Maastricht.
After three weeks of walking/cycling, an anticlimactic litter bin and a small stone monument beside the track tell us that we’ve made it to Sint Pietersberg and the end of the route. We ask a passing group of Goretex-jacketed retirees to photograph us. ‘We’ve just done the whole Pieterpad!’ we tell them. ‘Nearly 500km!’ ‘What’s the Pieterpad?’ they ask. Well, it was always meant to be a personal achievement.

Guidebooks (in Dutch, but with self-explanatory maps, accommodation listings, and Dutch/English glossary): Pieterpad (two volumes) pub. Nivon www.nivon.nl

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HADRIAN, DOSTOYEVSKY AND ELVIS – Walking in Germany’s Taunus

Where did Roman Emperor Hadrian and Fyodor Dostoyevsky share a bath with Elvis?

If you’ve ever been to Frankfurt, I bet you weren’t there just to enjoy yourself. You went for a conference or a trade fair, or you passed through Europe’s third busiest airport on your way to somewhere else.

I was there to work too, talking to students about my children’s books, but I had the weekend off and needed to unwind. Saturday brought the first fine weather after a grey week, so the Frankfurters turned out for some serious fun. The path by the River Main was crowded with bikers and joggers, most professionally dressed in lycra. Water and bananas were available at organised rest stops.

A massive flea market was in full swing, with browsers shuffling past battered stereos, mobile phones and bikes. On the water a fireboat was squirting along to entertain the kiddies, while on the bank the junior fire brigade was demonstrating hoses and safety harnesses.
I was ready for a quiet coffee, but around the famous Romer Square a food and wine fair was rocking, and merry Frankfurters were washing frankfurters down with riesling. All great fun, I’m sure, but rest and relaxation were what I was looking for.

So the next day, my knapsack on my back, I headed for the hills of the Taunus region, north west of Frankfurt. A local expert had told me there was good walking there and it turned out to be excellent advice.

The train took just under 20 minutes to reach the old village of Oberursel. It’s a half-timbered town. There’s nothing like half-timbering to give a place appeal. If they half-timbered Rooty Hill it would become a tourist mecca.

But the buildings in Oberursel’s narrow streets are all original. During World War II, allied POWs were housed here, strategically close to the aircraft engine factory, so the town avoided the bombing that flattened much of Frankfurt. The little museum (also half-timbered of course) displays relics of the area’s Celtic pre-history, and evidence of the town’s claim to be the site of an historic event, the world’s first Soap Box Derby, in 1904. 

I walked on up the road, past the supermarket and apartments that now stand on the old prison camp site, and the motor factory that now turns out Rolls Royces.

Then at Hohemark, I walked into the woods. Local outdoor group, the Taunusclub, had marked a 25km ‘wanderweg’ with symbols on trees to make sure I didn’t wander from the weg. The Taunusclub itself was filtering into the forest with mountain bikes, schnauzers and nordic walking poles, and each passing member greeted me with a cheery ‘Morgen!’

Spring was springing in the woods, with bright new growth standing out against the dark conifers, and birds flitting around. Val-deri, val-dera! The walking was easy; steadily uphill on well-made logging paths.
Interpretative boards explained (in English and German) that the vague ditches and rises I was crossing were the remains of the Heidetrank Oppidum, or fortified Celtic village.

A statue of Jupiter on a tall Roman column rose surprisingly from the forest floor. The Taunus Mountains marked the edge of the Roman Empire, where the ‘civilised’ world met the barbarian world. Emperor Hadrian, on his way to erect his wall across Britain, installed a series of watchtowers on the ridges to protect the empire from the ravaging hordes to the north.

A little further on I arrived at a smart Roman fort in Saalburg, a statue of Hadrianus Imperator guarding the gate. It was in remarkably good condition for a Roman ruin, having been rebuilt in 1901 by Kaiser Wilhelm II. I’d heard archaeologists have their doubts about just how accurate the reconstruction is, but inside the walls were the crumbling remains of the real Roman buildings, and a museum displaying weapons, armour and sandals. Outside the taverna a small legionnaire in a plastic breastplate was eating ice-cream with his dad.

A 6km stroll downhill through the forest, following more Taunusclub signs beside a pleasantly babbling stream, took me to Bad Homburg. It’s not an inferior hat, but a charming and popular resort town with thermal baths. The tables were out on the terraces and people enjoyed the sunshine and absurdly large beers.

Hadrian must have kicked back here too. After a sweaty day beating off barbarians, he’d certainly have taken a relaxing dip in Bad Homburg’s roman baths. In the nineteenth century Kaiser Wilhelm, ever keen to improve on Roman architecture, built an elaborate bathhouse over them, surrounded by the extensive gardens of the Kurpark.

Now for EUR60 ($100) you can spend all day on simulated beach in the Sand Light Bath, shower in hail under the Ice Fountain, and finally have a Wave Dream in a dark room. Those in a hurry to relax can pay EUR25 and whip through it all in two hours. Lie on a real beach on a hot day, get caught in a hailstorm, then go home to bed and you’ve done it all for free.  

Across from the baths is Bad Homburg Casino, ‘the mother of Monte Carlo’ according to its advertising. I walked in and out without losing any money, which makes me smarter in one respect than Dostoyevsky, who went broke here and in nearby Wiesbaden in 1865. No doubt he needed a cold shower in the Ice Fountain afterwards.

Dostoyevsky wrote a fictional version of his experience in the novel ‘The Gambler’. Was it a coincidence that the following book he wrote was ‘The Idiot’?

Bad Homburg itself is well worth a walk around. The squares have more of that attractive half-timbering and the tower of the schloss (castle) and steeples of the Erloserkirche overlook the beautiful schloss gardens.

‘So what about Elvis?’ I hear you ask. In 1959 he was stationed in Germany while in the US army, though because he was famous, he was given leave to stay in hotels instead of at the barracks with the boys. He chose Bad Homburg and Bad Nauheim as his home bases, and reputedly met 14-year-old Priscilla in baths in this area.

The Taunusclub signs directed me back towards Oberursel, through fields of yellow canola, with the wind sweeping down from the hills on one side and Frankfurt’s office towers poking out of the smoke haze on the other.

Outside Oberursel I found an educational billboard with a diagram explaining how the wind from the Taunus Mountains cleans the air of the towns. It had blown some clean air into my lungs too and I was ready for more serious work.

TRIP NOTES:

Trains from Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof (central station) to Oberursel and Bad Homburg leave every 15-30 minutes and cost EUR3.60 ($6) one way. Day tickets for all transport in the Taunus area are EUR8.90, and all the places mentioned above are accessible for non-walkers by train and bus.
Entry to the Roman Castle at Saalburg costs EUR3.

First published Sun-Herald, Sydney

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KAMAKURA KARMA – a walk outside Tokyo


Kamakura is no place for the weak-kneed. We clambered up muddy forest paths and climbed a thousand temple steps. Then when my Japanese hosts Takashi and Ayumi suggested we go somewhere and sit down, I thought they meant on a chair. I didn’t realise we’d be on the floor, folded like origami frogs. But the trip was well worth the physiotherapy bill.

The small town of Kamakura, 50km south of Tokyo, was the Japanese capital from 1185 to 1333. Now it’s a popular day-excursion destination for Tokyo residents and tourists needing a break from karaoke bars and department stores. Kamakura promises temples, forests, hiking trails, craft shops and a view of Mt Fuji from the beach.

The train ride takes just under an hour from central Tokyo. It was Sunday, so we shared our compartment with a large proportion of Tokyo’s working population, and hung on straps until many of them disembarked at Yokohama, presumably to go shopping for car tyres.

It was a relief to step onto the platform at Kitakamakura, just north of the main town centre. Here were trees, here were hills and the air was fresh.

There were plenty of temples to choose from, but we started with Engakuji, one of the five Zen Buddhist temples in the area. It was founded in 1282, honouring soldiers who fought off a Mongol invasion, but the buildings are not nearly so old, having been replaced and renovated through the centuries.

Engakuji boasts two national treasures – the great temple bell and the Shariden shrine, reputed to contain the Buddha’s tooth. We could see the lovely shrine through the gate, but it’s closed to the public most of the year, so don’t ask me how well the Buddha had been flossing.

Other shrines were open however, and their gardens were lovely, even in the non-cherry blossom season. Under the maple trees, groundsmen had carefully raked the pebble ponds into ripples around standing stones, and fat carp in the ornamental lake begged for food.

Foreigners tried hard to follow local customs. In the teahouse, an American visitor was getting a serious lesson in tea ceremony etiquette. Two large western women bowed low before a shrine and as we watched from behind, the angle was not flattering. Most Japanese visitors seemed less concerned with tradition, and were busily photographing each other with their mobile phones.
The direct road to downtown Kamakura was crowded, so we set off along a steep trail leading up into the woods, following English signposts towards the Great Buddha.

Take my advice: don’t wear your stiletto heels to Kamakura. They seemed to be compulsory for many women, who bravely picked their way along the hiking path, looking very chic, but only when they could stand upright.

After half an hour we came to a short tunnel, leading through rock to the Zeniari (‘coin washing’) Benten Shrine. They say money dipped in the shrine’s spring water will double, so we eagerly put it to the test.

We tried to do it right. We bought candles and incense sticks. Dutifully we lit them, rang the temple bell, bowed, clapped our hands, and respectfully asked to be made rich. Next we paid another modest sum to rent baskets in which to place our money, then with the faithful and the hopeful we laundered banknotes in the spring.

I thought of washing my Visa card to see if my credit limit would double, but lost my nerve. The card had already been rejected by several ATMs and moistening it would be courting disaster.

Beside the spring, a sign in Japanese included just two English words: DRIES NATURALLY. Takashi translated the rest of the message for me: ‘Warning – visitors should not dry money over candles.’ Doubtless there’d been unfortunate incidents in the past.

The rain started and showed no sign of drying naturally, so we dipped into our baskets and used our soggy notes at the souvenir shop to buy umbrellas. My cash had now been halved, while the temple’s money had doubled during our visit.

Then it was on to the Great Buddha, the best-known symbol of Kamakura. The building that originally housed it was washed away in a tsunami, so now the Buddha sits exposed to the elements, his serene face hovering nearly fifteen metres above our worldly worries.

The statue is hollow, so for yet another of those small fees, Ayumi and I joined those filing through the back door. The inside of a big metal Buddha resembles the inside of a big metal water tank; it’s interesting if you enjoy looking at welding. More fun were the temple shops selling Great Buddha-shaped candies. I like a religion that can laugh at itself sometimes.

We headed back into town to look for a place to eat. The road was lined with restaurants, only recognisable as eating-houses by the pictures of their food on placards outside. Takashi and Ayumi chose a traditional vegetarian establishment, and it was beautiful. But I must have blanched at the sight of the low tables, because our waitress immediately bowed and, in English considerably better than my Japanese (which doesn’t extend much beyond “konichiwa”, “sushi” and “pokemon”), offered me a chair.

I was too embarrassed to accept, since other diners looked comfortable sitting cross-legged on cushions. But my clumsy western legs left an awkward chasm between table and mouth, through which soft tofu could slither off my chopsticks into my lap. A great pity, because the food was wonderful and nothing should have been wasted.

The Japanese taste in design always surprises me. In this restaurant the emphasis was on muted colours, sage green walls and straw cushions, with bare wooden tables and red lacquer bowls. Everything understated, nothing out of place. Yet outside in the street the neon signs were garish and the shops full of kitsch Hello Kitty merchandise. 

As darkness fell we climbed one last flight of steps to the main Hachimangu shrine, to watch the stars prick out over Kamakura. The crowds had thinned so we were almost alone. There was nothing but peace and quiet, such a change from the throbbing streets of Tokyo. What an excellent day!

First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney

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WALKING WITH KIWIS – a week on the Shaky Isles

Wednesday 9/12/09

My final adventure for this trip was just outside Auckland in the Waitakere Ranges. Only a half hour drive out of town – spectacular forest with some mighty kauri trees, nikau palms, plenty of birds and beautiful black sand beaches including Karekare, the beach featured in Jane Campion’s film The Piano.

Saturday 5/12/09 – Monday 7/12/09
What a truly brilliant excursion is the three-day canoe trip down the Whanganui River! “Chuck an empty canoe in the river here and it will make it to the finish”, said our guide Dave. “It’s just the people in it that complicate things.” He was right, really. We rookies did our best to paddle in straight lines, but most of the time just relaxing and letting the river take us downstream was enough.

We passed through fabulous forest, gorgeous gorges, gentle water with the odd stretch of rapids to keep us from getting totally complacent. Add to that good company – from Denmark, New Zealand, Scotland, Canada and Australia.

This is the one New Zealand “Great Walk” that everyone can do sitting down.

Friday 4/12/09

The weather forecast was bad and the weather itself no better, so the dawn walk up Mt Tongariro was called off. The dawn event would have required getting up at 1.30am to start hiking at a ridiculous 2.30am. So I was happy to sleep in, eat a big breakfast in the Powderhorn Chateau in the ski village Ohakune, then drive out to start the walk in the mist and drizzle around 10am. This meant missing the crowds of backpackers who usually turn the crossing into a parade.

Just six of us formed the party, led by Adrift Outdoors director Stewart and guide Chris. It not an easy walk, though anyone who puts in the effort is going to survive it if they’re careful and well equipped. Stewart made sure that we were.

The view of Mt Ngaruhoe, which starred as Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was non-existent, and Stewart had to valiantly paint us a word picture of the (normally stunning) Red Crater and Emerald Lakes as we peered into impenetrable mist and driving rain.

To further take the road less travelled, Stewart led us off the main path, up Mt Tongariro, then down “off-track”, picking our way between the rocks to make a 7-hour loop back to our starting point. Weather improved as the day wore on, but this is a great walk in any conditions.

Thursday 3/12/09

The Naked Bus from Auckland to Rotorua wasn’t quite as exciting as it sounds. Driver Craig remained fully clothed for the entire four hour trip and I for one was pretty pleased about that. He was a big boy for his height.

Rotorua, hotspot of geothermal tourism and centre of Maori culture, was in the middle of a power blackout when I arrived. Toilets in the tourist information office were in pitch darkness. I could only guess that I was doing the right thing in the right place, with sound alone as my guide. Until a gentleman next to me switched on his mobile phone and suddenly there was light.

It was all good practice for tomorrow’s adventure, hiking up Mt Tongariro in the dark (start time 2am) so as to get to the summit for breakfast at dawn. I’ve been sent an equipment checklist which includes many layers of warm clothing and a headlamp, with no mention made of sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats. The rain seems to have cleared for the moment, and the predicted thunderstorms have held off, so maybe the adventure will be on.

New Zealand weather reports could really be the same every day : ‘We don’t have a clue what the weather will be like tomorrow. It will probably rain, but maybe it won’t.’
After Tongariro it’s straight up to the Whanganui River, a wifi-free zone, so probably can’t post news till Monday. But stay tuned…

Wednesday 2/12/09

Here I am, the Grim Reaper of Auckland, or maybe one of those Star Wars guys, in New Zealand for a week or so, with a series of death-defying experiences planned, highlights of which should be (1) Hiking up volcanic Mt Tongariro, starting in the dark at some ridiculous hour, so as to be on the summit for dawn (2) Canoeing down the reputedly lovely Whanganui River (3) active adventures, details to be confirmed, which can be done as a day excursion from Auckland.

Weather forecast: Same as today – wet and dismal, as is typical for this little country which unwisely sticks its mountains up into unbroken westerly winds, tickling the tummy of every passing cloud and causing it to wet itself. If it turns really nasty, some of the above activities may be cancelled and we’ll have to play inside instead.

However, to start with some good news…

I found what seemed to be a good deal on a flight, picking up the tail end of an Emirates flight from Dubai to Auckland via Sydney. AUD420 including taxes – not bad.

To that I added a bus fare (NZD35 – ‘cheap as chups’) to my first destination, Rotorua. Air New Zealand must have hacked into my online activity, because no sooner had I committed to Emirates plus bus than Air NZ announced a direct Sydney-Rotorua flight for AUD199. As the Kiwis would say – “Bugger!”

However, EK412 turned out to be a near empty Airbus380. I had three seats at the back of economy, with good leg room, power supply for the laptop, acceptable omelette and fruit salad and wide screen TV showing a wide selection of movies. I bet they didn’t screen Azwaj Te’shoun on that direct flight to Rotorua. I watched Julie and Julia instead, but it was nice to know those Arabic movies were there.

More good news: the currency exchange rate.
Normally people can track my movements around the world by following the international currency exchanges. When the Euro skyrockets, it means I’m heading to Europe soon. British pound at record levels? That’s because I’ve just booked London accommodation and haven’t paid for it yet. Any rise in the value of the Aussie dollar means I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.

But this time I’ve had a win. The poor little Kiwi dollar hasn’t fared too well during the GFC, while the Australia has enjoyed an economic miracle (being the first country after the meltdown to raise interest rates and all that) So at time of writing the Kiwi dollar is hovering around 80 Australian cents.

I’d read about controversy over the Whitcoulls’ Santa, who’s graced the corner of his Auckland city building every Yuletide since 19…, well he’d been there a long time and become an institution. This year he’s been given a new face, because the one he’s worn all those years was considered a bit creepy. Here’s the new one. You be the judge, but it’s a worry if the old one was creepier than this.

More tomorrow, when I’ll be riding the curiously named ‘Naked Bus’ to Rotorua. Note to self: keep camera handy, you never know.

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